GTI partners with Cuban seminary to equip leaders for ministry
Lauren Pratt | March 27, 2018
The Cuban church planting movement has been on the move for nearly 28 years as house churches have grown in number and people have come to Christ by the thousands. With such a movement comes the need for theological training to equip leaders for ministry.
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) has the opportunity to enter into what God has been doing for nearly three decades through partnering with the Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Santiago and the Eastern Baptist Convention. This is made possible through the Hispanic Leadership Development program, an arm of Global Theological Initiatives (GTI) at SEBTS.
“It’s really neat that Southeastern [can] come alongside the Eastern Baptist Convention in this very unique period in Cuba’s history,” said Miguel Echevarria, director of Hispanic Leadership Development at SEBTS.
“We’re training trainers. That’s the whole idea.”
This is how John Ewart, associate vice president of GTI and ministry centers at SEBTS, describes the work that is taking place as SEBTS partners with the Cuban seminary.
SEBTS is training 40 professors, convention leaders and lay missionaries (church planters) with the end goal of them graduating with a Master of Theological Studies (MTS). In this 48-hour degree program, students have the opportunity to write and publish a thesis with the goal of having their work at Southeastern’s campus library.
In November 2017, Danny Akin, president of SEBTS, Echevarria and Ewart, travelled to Cuba. Akin and Ewart welcomed new students to the MTS program and Echevarria taught a course on the Gospels. They also spent time at local churches, First and Fourth Baptist Churches of Santiago. This time of in-person training happens a couple times a year while the rest of the teaching is done online. Most of these students are currently teaching at the seminary and its two extension centers and 34 lay missionary training centers, where many lay missionaries are trained for two years.
Southeastern is the only school to currently be working with the Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. The seminary itself has 995 students in its bachelor’s and graduate programs as well as its extension centers.
The institution offers a myriad of programs for its students, including a master’s in counseling, bachelor’s degrees, a lay missionary course and more.
Pastor’s wives can also receive special training through the Janet Hunt Pastor’s Wives Course. Janet Hunt, wife of pastor Johnny Hunt of First Baptist Church Woodstock in Woodstock, Georgia, provides a scholarship fund for Cuban women to be trained and equipped for their continued ministry. Charlotte Akin, Wendy Urbanek, Susie Hawkins and Kathy Litton are among the other notable wives to help host these trainings.
Even though Cuba was introduced to Christianity in the late 1800s, it was not until the 1990s that the church planting movement in Cuba occurred.
While there were and are other evangelicals in Cuba, Baptists were divided into two groups geographically – the Eastern Baptist Convention under American Baptists and the Western Baptist Convention under Southern Baptists by the 1898 comity agreements in a meeting held in Washington D.C. From 1886-1989, the Western Baptist Convention worked with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) and the Home Mission Board passed the responsibility to the SBC Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board) in 1989.
More recently, Southeastern partnered with the Eastern Baptist Convention in 2017, but the two have had an ongoing relationship since 2011.
Kurt Urbanek, author of “Cuba’s Great Awakening: Church Planting Movement in Cuba,” wrote that Cuban church leaders during the nineties did not initially realize a church planting movement was taking place, only that Bible study attendance had increased. Over the past 27 years, Cuba has seen significant church growth.
In 1990, the Eastern Baptist Convention had no house churches but did have 132 established churches with a total of 7,254 members, but in 2016 these numbers have risen to 622 local churches and 4,830 house churches. In 2017 the number of churches, missions and house churches has grown to more than 6,208. (648 churches, 777 missions and 4,783 house churches.)
In 2017 alone, the growth among believers was explosive, as Eastern Cuban Baptists recorded 43,072 professions of faith. The total number of professions of faith since 1990 was 519,911, all happening within the Eastern Baptist Convention and all a result of special evangelistic events. These conversions did not include the further increased number of people coming to faith through house churches, local churches and missions.
This example of exponential growth shows that when the Holy Spirit begins to work in and through his people, the Church is unstoppable.
“There’s something special going on in Cuba. There’s a movement of God going on in Cuba right now. People are coming to faith in droves; churches are being planted in droves,” said Echevarria, comparing it to the Great Awakenings America saw during the 18th and 19th centuries.
“I am impressed with their theology. It’s a reproduction that I want to see happen,” said Ewart. “If I could take some of the theology that these guys have and put it in some of the other partnerships we have around the world, it would be a strengthening effect.”
Ultimately, the goal of the SEBTS partnership in Cuba is to train up reproducible leaders who can continue to advance the great movement of the gospel that has been happening for decades.
“We hope to have an influence in the classroom [so that] they would then take what they are being taught and then teach it to others,” said Echevarria.